Viewpoint by Sugeeswara Senadhira
The writer is Director (International Media), Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. This article was first published on April 26. It is being re-published with Mr Senadhira’s permission.
COLOMBO (IDN) — Exactly 35 years ago, on April 26, 1986, the biggest nuclear accident in history took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, killing dozens of people and making hundreds of people victims of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). Later, the disaster was attributed to a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture in the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe is an ideal occasion to emphasise the imperative need for strict safeguards to prevent any possible nuclear accidents of that nature in future. This is highly applicable to an island nation such as Sri Lanka with large ports providing facilities to international freighter vessels.
Last week, timely detection of radioactive material in a ship docked at the Hambantota Port was ordered to leave immediately, thus avoiding a possible danger to the port or its employees. M.V. BBC Naples sailing under the flag of “Antigua and Barbados” entered the Port of Hambantota on April 20, while en route from Rotterdam, the Netherlands to China.
According to Sri Lankan Ports Authority, the ship made an emergency call at the port for some urgent repairs. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Navy, and Customs officials had approved all the necessary documentation prior to berthing of the vessel, based on the declaration made by the agent. What is intriguing was the fact that the agents for the vessel in Sri Lanka, Ms. Barwil Meridian Navigation, had not declared to the port authorities that there was dangerous cargo on board prior to the vessel entering the port.
When investigations were made by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Ports Authority, it was found that the ship was carrying a cargo of Uranium Hexafluoride. “Uranium hexafluoride is nuclear material that is commonly transported from one country to another. But as per Sri Lankan law, we need any vessel carrying radioactive material to obtain prior permission before berthing at any of our ports. This vessel had not obtained that clearance,” H.L. Anil Ranjith, Director General of Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Regulatory Council (SLAERC) said.
The vessel was required to leave the port no sooner the facts were verified. Director of the Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Board, T.M.R Tennakoon told Media that port authorities were unaware of the material on board the ship when it entered the port. He confirmed that when it was discovered that the ship contained radioactive material, steps were taken to move the vessel to the outer port. He said that the ship was instructed not to unload any of the items on the vessel.
The Navy and Customs were present at all times to ensure that there wasn’t any cargo unloaded onto the Hambantota Port premises. Tennakoon said that there was no immediate threat to Sri Lanka from the hazardous items on board the ship. Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Board said legal action will be sought against the local agents of the vessel in question.
Sri Lanka’s Atomic Energy Act No. 40 of 2014 requires the declaration of materials and no approval, authority or permission shall be granted for the export from or import into Sri Lanka of any controlled item, without the prior written approval of the Council. Violation of the provisions is an offence and on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both fine and imprisonment.
However, these regulations have been drafted in line with peaceful purposes, but if a person is caught using radioactive materials for a non-peaceful purpose, they would face 20 years of imprisonment.
SLAERC DG said Sri Lanka has established a national Nuclear Emergency Management Plan to deal with impacts from possible nuclear power plant accidents. The closest such plant is in Tamil Nadu. In the past, nuclear powers strengthened safety at nuclear reactors and power plants but could not prevent unforeseen accidents.
History of Nuclear Disasters
The accident destroyed the Chernobyl 4 reactor, killing 30 operators and firemen within three months and several further deaths later. ARS was originally diagnosed in 237 people onsite and involved with the clean-up and it was later confirmed in 134 cases. Of these, 28 people died as a result of ARS within a few weeks of the accident. Nineteen more workers subsequently died between 1987 and 2004. Chernobyl was the second biggest nuclear accident in the Soviet Union.
The Kyshtym Nuclear disaster was a radiation contamination incident that occurred on 29 September 1957 at Mayak, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Soviet Union. It measured as a Level 6 disaster on the INES, making it the third most serious nuclear disaster ever recorded behind the Chernobyl Disaster and Fukushima Daiichi Disaster in Japan. The event occurred in the town of Ozyorsk, a closed city built around the Mayak plant.
The three Western nuclear powers—United States, United Kingdom and France—too have had their quota of nuclear accidents. The worst nuclear disaster in Great Britain’s history occurred on October 10, 1957 at Sellafield, UK and ranked at level 5 on the INES scale. The accident occurred when the reactor caught fire, releasing substantial amounts of radioactive contamination into the surrounding area. 240 cancer cases have since been linked to the fire.
In March 1979 two nuclear reactors’ meltdown in Pennsylvania, US resulting in the worst disaster in commercial nuclear power plant history. Small amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine were released into the environment. Luckily, epidemiology studies have not linked a single cancer with the accident.
On January 3, 1961 a US Army experimental nuclear power reactor in Idaho underwent a steam explosion and meltdown killing its three operators. It was caused by improper removal of the control rod, responsible for absorbing neutrons in the reactor core. This event is the only known fatal reactor accident in the US The accident released about 80 curies of iodine -131.
50 kg of uranium in one of the gas-cooled reactors at Saint Laurent in France began to melt in October 1969. This was classified as Level 4 on the INES and to this day remains the most serious civil nuclear disaster in French history.
The above nuclear accidents showed that strict adherence to safety rules is a prime requirement when dealing with radioactive material. While one could be happy about the timely action by Hambantota Port officials last week, it is essential to emphasise the need to be vigilant all the time at the ports and airports to prevent entry of radioactive material. [IDN-InDepthNews — 28 April 2021]
Photo: Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum resembling the reactor that suffered the catastrophic failure (reactor core surrounded by blue). CC BY 2.0
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